Sunday 11 October 2015

A new disc from Metier featuring the Moores Symphony Orchestra proves an excellent way to get to know works by Thomas Fortmann, Robert Nelson and Peter Lieuwen together with a fine arrangement of Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy

A new recording from Metier brings an attractive and enterprising collection of orchestral works by contemporary American composers coupled with a transcription for orchestra of Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy. All of these works are played by the Moores Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Franz Anton Krager

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I had not heard of the Moores Symphony Orchestra before but they are an orchestra comprising 110+ members conducted by University of Houston Director of Orchestras, Franz Anton Krager.  As a major ensemble, the orchestra performs as a musical partner with many of the Moores School of Music’s departments and studios.  The high level of its performances has been hailed by international artists and critics alike as a student ensemble of professional quality and versatility.  They appear regularly with world-class performing artists and has been featured at several Texas Music Educators Association conventions as well as at The Midwest Clinic in Chicago.  The Moores Symphony Orchestra enjoys frequent broadcasts on KUHA Classical 91.7 and The Front Row and can be heard on compact disc on a number of other recordings.  

Membership is open, by audition, to all graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Houston.  The orchestra collaborates on a regular basis with the Moores Opera Center, Moores School Choirs, and the Houston Ballet Academy.  It is a leading ensemble in the area of new music as well as being an important repository for the standard repertoire. Many Moores Symphony Orchestra graduates have gone on to become professional level orchestra musicians, conductors and leading music educators.

The first work on this new disc is Thomas Fortmann’s Symphony No. 2 ‘Etruria’ Thomas Fortmann was born in Switzerland and became a successful songwriter during the 1970s. At the age of twenty six Fortmann abandoned his career as a rock musician and dedicated himself to further studies in composition and instrumentation. This period prepared the foundation for compositions such as the Pythagoras and Aion Symphonies, the oratorio Francescano, and three music plays, Sommerfrau & Winterwolf, The Cross and the Rooster and Collodis Pinocchio. In the mid 1980s he moved with his family to Tuscany, Italy where he founded the Accademia Amiata. In addition to his activities as a composer, he has also conducted at the Toscano delle Culture festival for several years.

His Symphony No. 2 is in four movements opening with a Moderato where chimes from the celeste and tubular bells appear before the strings bring a shifting dissonant melody creating a quite exquisite sound. A solo violin appears in the texture, timpani sound quietly as the lower strings bring a deep anchor to the swirling strings. Brass enter above the strings as more drama arrives and the music gains in strength. Soon timpani herald a sudden drop in tempo and dynamics to a slower, quieter passage full of atmosphere and a sense of expectation. A solo violin brings a faster, lighter section through hazy orchestral textures before moving through some passages where the lower strings adding a brooding feel. There is a fine sense of forward flow before the beautifully turned coda.

Lower wind open the Animato that goes ahead with a rhythmic theme pointed up by an array of percussion, full of rhythmic variety and colourful sounds. It moves through rhythmic, dissonant passages, becoming increasingly dramatic with swirling strings and a fine orchestration. The music eventually works up to a peak before relaxing to a quieter section where percussion are still heard before rising to the coda.

The Larghetto opens with a shifting haze of orchestral sound through which the theme can be heard, timpani keeping a rhythmic pulse. It moves through passages of very distinctive string sounds, little drooping phrases, passages of shifting harmonies, full of fine textures and sonorities creating a fine atmosphere.  The music eventually rises through a brightly lit brass passage before sinking into the quiet, hazier texture, pointed up by timpani. It rises again with side drum and brass to the coda that arrives with a quieter woodwind phrase.

Brass and percussion open the lively Andante with woodwind soon bringing a fast moving theme. The theme is quickly moved around the orchestra, rattling ahead with a myriad of percussion in a riot of variations. This is a terrific movement with occasional brass rhythms that have a jazzy nature. Later a quieter hesitant passage arrives, full of fine orchestral detail. The music soon gains a rhythmic flow with some attractive woodwind parts as it slowly increases in dynamics, moving forward, full of panache and colour towards the sudden end.

This is an attractive symphony, beautifully orchestrated.

Robert Nelson was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1941, but grew up in the Midwest.  He began piano lessons and made his first attempts at composition while still at school later taking up the trumpet. During his senior year he began playing both trumpet and piano in local dance bands, an interest that he pursued throughout college and his professional career. He began serious composition study with Robert Beadell at the University of Nebraska, where he received his Bachelor’s degree with a major in music education and his Master of Music degree. He continued his composition studies with Ingolf Dahl and Halsey Stevens at the University of Southern California, where he earned his Doctor of Musical Arts degree with a major in composition. In 1968, he joined the music faculty at the University of Houston, which would eventually become the Moores School of Music.  He is currently Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Composition and co-author of five widely adopted music theory books. His interest in combining classical and jazz elements has found expression in many of his works, most prominently Up South, written for the combined Moores School of Music Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble.

Here we have his Capriccio for violin and orchestra for which the Moores Symphony Orchestra are joined by violinist, Andrzej Grabiec . In the opening, the solo violin brings a theme above light swirling strings pointed up by the celeste. The music soon moves ahead with a richer orchestral sound, the soloist bringing some fine rhapsodising flourishes to this very fine melody.  Soon the music reduces to a quiet moment coloured by delicate percussion. A vibrant section arrives, punctuated by deeper orchestral phrases before moving through more flowing passages. There is a passage with a staccato, rhythmically hesitant pulse as well as a romantic passage redolent of Korngold at his most melodic, before a beautifully drawn lead up to the vibrant coda.

This is another most attractive work that is also finely orchestrated.

Peter Lieuwen was born in Utrecht, The Netherlands, in 1953, and grew up in New Mexico. He studied at the University of New Mexico and the University of California, Santa Barbara with composers Scott Wilkinson, William Wood, Edward Applebaum, Emma Lou Diemer, and Peter Racine Fricker. From 1984 to 1987 he taught composition at UC Santa Barbara. Since 1988 he has been on the faculty of Texas A&M University. From 2000-2005 Lieuwen served as the inaugural head of the Department of Performance Studies at TAMU, where he is currently Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence. Many of Lieuwen’s compositions are impressions of nature and legend, infused with the kinetic rhythms of jazz and world music. His orchestral works have been introduced by orchestras around the world.

Astral Blue was written in 2006 and reflects the beauty of the natural earthly and cosmic environment. Bright, vibrant strings open with an insistent, repeated motif with brass adding the theme. The repeated motif is shared around the orchestra before lower strings add an underlying deep support. The music moves ahead with various instrumental sections taking the theme around the insistent motive. A harp brings a quieter section for woodwind, with the strings joining to bring a flowing melody. There is a fine breadth and free flow before rising up majestically.  The harp brings another quieter section for strings to which the rest of the orchestra join as they move through passages of varied orchestration keeping a forward flow until a hush comes and a slow shimmering string passage arrives with little harp detail. A flute then clarinet enters before the music rises up to drive ahead with punctuated brass to the sparkling coda.

There are some finely written instrumental passages in this lovely work.

Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy for concert band was written in 1937 for the American Bandmasters Association. Its six movements are adapted from folk songs that he had collected on a trip to Lincolnshire, England in 1905–1906. Here the Moores Symphony Orchestra plays it in an arrangement for orchestra by M. Patterson.

The opening Lisbon brings a fine rhythmically sprung tune finely coloured in this orchestration. Horkstow Grange has a slow melody with the added sonority of a brass ensemble within the orchestra, picking up something of the favour of the original version. A solo cornet adds atmosphere before rising to a fine, sonorous climax.

There is a fine atmospheric Rufford Park Poachers that rises to some fine climaxes with some lovely use of brass. The Brisk Young Sailor brings a beautifully woven arrangement before the brass open Lord Melbourne in a terrific section before the full orchestra takes the music forward with a wistful central section. Finally there is a nicely pointed rhythmic The Lost Lady Found with the folksy element pointed up by this fine arrangement.

The Moores Symphony Orchestra under Franz Anton Krager bring some fine results in these often quite challenging works. If there are moments where the strings show a lack of body and refinement, the overall performances are extremely good. 

They are very well recorded at the Moores Opera House, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, USA. There is a nicely produced booklet with excellent notes, composer details and photographs making this an excellent way to get to know works by these composers. 

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